Silicon Valley long has been hailed as an exemplar of the American culture of opportunity, openness and entrepreneurship. Increasingly, however, the tech community is morphing into a ruling class with the potential for assuming unprecedented power over both our personal and political lives.

Rather than the plucky entrepreneurs of legend, America’s rising tech oligarchy constitutes a narrow emerging elite. They are primarily beneficiaries of the limited pools of risk capital – nearly half of which is concentrated in Silicon Valley. They also have access to a highly incestuous club of skilled professional managers, lawyers, PR mavens and accountants that counterparts elsewhere are unlikely to enjoy.

In contrast to the intense competitive environment that defined industries such as semiconductors, disc drives and personal computers in the 1980s, today’s “lords of cyberspace,” as author Katherine MacKinnon describes them, enjoy oligopolistic market shares that would thrill the likes of John D. Rockefeller. Google, for example, accounts for more than two-thirds of the market for Internet search. The fantastic wealth amassed by Bill Gates, like that of the other oligarchs, stems in large part from these kinds of “monopoly” rent; in his case, for consistently mediocre but dominant software.

Of course, these oligarchs, like feudal lords or rival gangs, sometimes fight among themselves, say, Google versus Apple over operating systems or, increasingly, over hardware segments of the industry. Yet, this struggle between oligarchs is far from a competitive free for all: Together, these two firms provide almost 90 percent of the operating systems for smartphones.

Faux Progressivism

Normally, progressives would be expected to decry such concentrations of wealth and power. But Silicon Valley has largely insulated itself from such criticism by taking “progressive” policy stances, notably on climate change, and by cultivating both a “hip” image and close ties to the Obama administration. When Steve Jobs died in 2011 during the Occupy Wall Street movement, the passing of this brilliant, but often ruthless, 0.00001 percenter was openly mourned as if he was a counterculture hero.

But this should not mask the fact that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have turned out to be every bit as cutthroat – and odious to the individual – as any industrial group in modern American history. As technologist and author Jaron Lanier has suggested, the current oligarchical ascendency rests not on improving productivity or sparking broad-based growth, but mining the private lives of every consumer in order to reap riches from advertisers.

Google, while a prime offender, is hardly alone in pursuing violations of privacy. Consumer Reports has detailed Facebook’s pervasive, and often deepening, privacy breaches. Ironically, as one blogger noted, even as Facebook has been loosening privacy restrictions for teenage users of its site, company founder Mark Zuckerberg acquired property around his Palo Alto estate to better-protect his privacy.

Once seen as a liberating force, the social media firms are morphing into an overweening Big Brother. Apple’s new devices, the tech publication Wired recently noted, are aimed at “building a world in which there is a computer in your every interaction, waking and sleeping.” The ambition for control is remarkable. As Google’s Eric Schmidt put it: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can, more or less, know what you’re thinking about.”

Political, social implications

In the emerging era of the tech oligarchs, the rights of the individual computer user look increasingly like those of farmers or small-business people shipping products by rail at the turn of the 20th century; sitting at a home office or kitchen table, the individual computer user has precious little leverage.

These odds will be made even longer as Silicon Valley leadership pursues sweeping ambitions to influence the political class. “Politics for me is the most obvious area [to be disrupted by the Web],” suggests former Facebook president Sean Parker.

The success with which technology assisted President Obama’s re-election effort offers clear support to Parker’s assertion. And, not surprisingly, when Obama’s top aides leave government, several have landed lucrative jobs with the tech elite.

Some see this ascendency as a positive. One tech booster foresees the old “nexus” between Wall Street and Washington being replaced by one between Silicon Valley and the federal leviathan, which will usher the world into a “new age of abundance, connectivity, innovation and sharing.” This viewpoint is beyond naïve, and closer to delusional.

We often forget that, despite their green and counterculture allure, the tech oligarchs are, indeed, oligarchs, who live fantastically luxurious and consumptive lives. Google executives, for example, have burned the equivalent of upward of 59 million gallons of crude oil – for many years at subsidized federal rates – from 2007-13 on their private jets, even as they hectored regular consumers to cut back on energy use.

But nothing so mimics the arrogance and hubris of the tech oligarchs as their largely successful efforts to avoid taxation. Bill Gates had voiced public support for higher taxes on the rich but tech companies, including Microsoft, have bargained over, and legally avoided paying, their own taxes while higher taxes fell on affluent, but hardly megarich, taxpayers.

Similarly, the founders of Twitter have developed elaborate plans to avoid taxation and protect their suddenly vast estates. Facebook paid no taxes in 2012, despite making a profit of over $1 billion. Apple, which the New York Times described as “a pioneer in tactics to avoid taxes,” has kept much of its cash hoard abroad to keep it away from Uncle Sam.

The Road to Oligarchy

Emboldened by their access to individual data, the tech oligarchs could form the core of what a recent report from the professional services giant PWC described as virtual “ministates,” with control over markets and employees that more resemble an Orwellian nightmare than a technological utopia.

This influence will be enhanced by growing control of the media. In the past, more hardware-oriented companies provided the “pipelines” through which traditional media disseminated their products. But, increasingly, the oligarchs – taking advantage of the online shift – are devastating traditional media. Google’s ad revenue in 2013 surpassed that of newspapers.

The Valleyites are also moving into the culture business, with both YouTube (owned by Google) and Netflix getting into the entertainment content business. The oligarchs may need to source content from more-established vendors on the East Coast or in Hollywood, but they increasingly will control the financial purse strings as well as the critical pipelines.

Diminishing benefits to society

Tech industry boosters, such as UC Berkeley’s Enrico Moretti, claim the new tech oligarchs represent the key to a growing economy and greater regional well-being. This claim, however, is dubious, even in Silicon Valley. Tech companies restrain their employees’ wage growth through informal agreements to prevent poaching of each others’ employees and by importing relatively low-paid “technocoolies” to do their programming. Expanding this category of workers has become a major priority for tech firms – despite a surplus of American IT workers – such as Facebook.

Rather than enhancing middle-class opportunities, high-technology industries have promoted an economy with sharp divisions between the top employees and low-wage workers in retail and other service industries such as janitors, clerks and cashiers. The mostly white and Asian employees at firms like Facebook and Google enjoy gourmet meals, child-care services, even complimentary housecleaning; but wages for the region’s African-American and large Latino populations, roughly one-third of the total, have actually dropped, notes a 2013 Joint Venture Silicon Valley report. As Russell Hancock, the group’s president, observed, “Silicon Valley is two valleys. There is a valley of haves, and a valley of have-nots.”

In San Francisco, Silicon Valley companies provide free and more luxurious transport for the privileged few they employ, providing a daily reminder of the growing segregation between rich and poor. Increasingly large sections of the Bay Area resemble a gated community, where much of the working and middle classes fork over a large portion of their incomes in rent and often are forced to commute huge distances to jobs serving the Valley’s upper crust.

There is no denying that the tech oligarchs will continue to play a critical role in the American economy; and, as Mike Malone, among others, suggests, they likely may become even more dominant in the years ahead. This will not be all bad; the country similarly benefited from the often-ruthless actions of the industrial moguls. But, at some point, the public has to weigh how much power and money can be concentrated in a relative handful of companies and people without posing a threat both to our individual rights and democracy itself.

This piece first appeared at the Orange County Register.

Cross-posted at New Geography.